Flesh and Marble
By Jonathan Rajewski
Yesterday morning I took LSD and went to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. We made sure we had enough time to get on the subway in Brooklyn and get there. Stepping off the 4 train at 86th and Lexington, things started to present themselves differently. The fountain out front was starting to vibrate. The crowds were too much to focus on and, as I got nervous, I suggested we look at the ceiling, because no one was walking on the ceiling. The acid hit when I reached the Egyptian exhibit, among the mummified bodies, tombs, sarcophagi, and amulets. I was tripping with the ancient dead.
We moved from room to room, drifting toward whatever drew us in: Marble statue of Herakles seated on a rock (Roman, Imperial period, 1st or 2nd century A.D., adaptation of a Greek statue of the late 4th or early 3rd century B.C.), Marble head of a woman (Roman, Imperial period, 1st or 2nd century A.D., copy of a Greek bronze statue of the 3rd or 2nd century B.C.), the sinuous Marble torso of a youth (Roman, Imperial period, 1st or 2nd century A.D., copy or adaptation of a Greek statue of the 4th century B.C.), the marble floors of the museum, Marble statue of satyriskos, the jovial armless, footless, crooked-headed child, the noseless rows of marble heads (Marble head of a woman from a grave marker, Greek, ca. 350-325 B.C., Marble head of a bearded man from a grave marker, Greek, ca. 325 B.C., Marble head of a girl probably from a stele (grave marker), Greek, ca. 350-325 B.C., Marble head of a bearded man and a woman from a grave marker, Greek, ca. 325 B.C.), the split head of (probably) Athena (its face was broken off in antiquity and later reattached) entitled Upper part of a marble statue of a woman, her nose gone, head cleaved, eyes possessed. Hair parted like waves.
I narrowly escaped the reproductions of old colonial American houses, their low ceilings, musty wood, and puritanical obsolescence. It was like a scene from The Crucible. I found the others and we made it to American Pottery: George E. Ohr’s melted vases and vessels, Fulper Pottery Company, early studio pottery, Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass. The room opened up to a massive indoor courtyard of marble and bronze figures, each one full of Saturnalic energy. The sculpted bodies, curves, convivial faces. I became aroused. Two nude men, George Grey Barnard’s Struggle of the Two Natures in Man (marble, 1888), one erotically standing over the other, amplifies the spectacle. Previously entitled Je sens deux hommes en moi (I sense two men in myself), the label affirmed my doubledness. Frederick William MacMonnies’ Bacchante and Infant Faun (bronze, 1893-1894) with a description that fit everything I was feeling: “An exuberant pagan reveler with grapes in her raised right hand holds an eager infant in the crook of her left arm. Her twinkling eyes, joyous mouth, spiraling form, lively silhouette, and richly textured surface combine to produce one of the most vibrant images in American art,” and one of the happiest moments of my trip. Her twisting, dancing body was pure joy; her face, a bronze mirror. Attilio Piccirilli’s Fragilina (marble, 1923), a kneeling nude, was calling upon us all to commence an orgy with every body, flesh and marble, starting with hers.
Mike insisted we find the Decorative Interiors section of The Met, a difficult place to find amid the crowds and indecision now that the acid was at peak effect. We made the mistake of asking for help, embarrassing ourselves when it was clear we couldn’t form sentences. We eventually made it there: ornamental everything, a level of decor so over the top, so immoderate, it became comedy. Fancy dressers, candelabras, fireplaces, mirrors, urns, glass figurines, chandeliers, and things I don’t know the names for, or purposes of. The beds had flowing velvet curtains around them with whittled wooden trim and ostentatious silver bedposts. I fled and found another room of ceramic work. An Art Nouveau fireplace, Fireplace Surround (ca. 1900), attributed to Jean-Désiré Muller (French, 1877–1952), drew me into another room, full of ceramics; Large Dish with Birds and Large Dish with Flowers and Butterflies by Joseph-Théodore Deck (French, 1823–1891) hung overhead. In another room: Foreign Warrior Mask (Samana), Mali, Dogon peoples (19th century–20th century), wood, pigment, Face Mask and Hood (Kanaga), Mali, Dogon peoples (19th–20th century), wood, fiber, hide, pigment, and one of my favorite things in the whole museum: Ritual Board (Wenena Gerua), Siane peoples, eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea, ca. 1950, wood, paint, feathers, fiber. It’s a carved symmetrical abstraction, covered in red, yellow, black (or cerulean), white feathers, and more interesting than everything else I saw in New York City.
As the boundaries separating me from the rest of the world continued to dissolve, Allyson guided us toward a cow skull painting by Georgia O’Keefe she noticed way out in the distance. Its skinless, sulking face looked as if it was emerging from a red, white, and blue vagina. I didn’t like that painting, but we cascaded into a succession of beautiful paintings. I failed to make note of the exhibition title, but it was an exhibition about Modernism. Peter Blume’s South of Scranton (1931, oil on canvas), made me want to visit Scranton for a few minutes, a work of men in underwear in various awkward poses floating in space on the top of what looks like a ship or observation deck, docked in a small town with funny-shaped buildings. I stared at the way the water was painted for a long time, speckled and moonlit, dotted blues and whites. When I got to Jackson Pollock’s Number 28 (1950, enamel on canvas), the acid convinced me it was a good painting. Layers of olive green, gray, aluminum, white, black, and yellow webs of pulsing pigment. Strands of electrical currents pumping all over. I was transfixed and uncomfortable. A Marsden Hartley painting (Berlin Series No. 2, 1914, oil on canvas) relaxed me. After seeing his Maine paintings at the Met Breuer in April, I fell in love with him.
Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912, oil on canvas by Wassily Kandinsky, was another glow in my eye. The label read: “Kandinsky theorized a new form of artistic expression that would reject the materialist world in favor of emotional and spiritual ideals, using abstract forms and color symbolism to evoke an inner, preconscious world.” Henri Rousseau’s The Banks of the Bièvre near Bicêtre (ca. 1908–1909, oil on canvas) and its outstretched tangle of serpentine boughs, The Reaper (1919, oil on canvas) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Water of the Flowery Mill (1944, oil on canvas) by Arshile Gorky, Patrick Henry Bruce’s Objects on a Table (ca. 1920–1921, oil on canvas), Georges Braque’s Woman Seated at an Easel (1936, oil with sand on canvas), Oscar Schlemmer’s Group in a Cutout, (1930, oil on canvas) flooded out before me. The acid was instructing us to go to Central Park. I was sick of walking and asked if we could stop. We sat in Shakespeare’s Garden and drew for an hour. I made a handful of drawings of the trees in the garden and I like some of them. We took the subway sauna to Dumbo and waited for the East River Ferry for over an hour. The sky turned black because of a storm that never came. Once the ferry took off, we stood atop the deck, speeding up the river at dusk past the piles of buildings to Greenpoint. We ate Chinese food and ended the night at a midnight movie with our BYOB wine. The film was Shu Lea Cheang’s I.K.U. (2001), a Japanese sci-fi porno inspired by Blade Runner and pink films, with shapeshifting cyborgs sent by a multinational corporation to collect “orgasm data” from targets, among them a former museum curator turned drifter. I was amused and vaguely aroused, but also anxious as I was coming down and back into or out of myself. My body was tired; I had seen so much. I took a cab back to a Lower East Side hotel and went to bed.
Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017
New York, N.Y.
A psychonautic excerpt from the artist’s private journals.
Jonathan Rajewski is an artist and writer. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Yale Review, Three Fold Press, Mousse Magazine, The Exhibitionist (MIT Press), and Essay’d (Wayne State University Press). He received a BA in Philosophy from Michigan State University and an MFA in Painting & Printmaking from the Yale School of Art. He lives and works in Detroit, Michigan.
Fig. 1 The Banks of the Bièvre near Bicêtre, Henri Rousseau, ca. 1908–09, oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 18 inches. Gift of Marshall Field, 1939, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art website. All rights reserved.